As residents head to the polls for Super Tuesday 2016 to choose a nominee for president in 12 states, Democratic U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is fighting to stay in the race against former Secy of State Hillary Clinton.
Folks in Vermont know their U.S. Senator likes to keep his Jewish faith on the “q.t.” and they have accepted it with equanimity.
But not so the American Jewish community at large – and that fact may now be creating a backlash at the polls, when Bernie Sanders most needs the support of The Tribe.
After his February 9 win in New Hampshire – the first Jewish candidate to win a major party presidential primary – Jews outside the country have been watching his progress closely. It was more sluggish than one might expect, given the swashbuckling performance he turned in last month.
Part of the problem is while most candidates are wide open about their personal backgrounds – they have to be for transparency’s sake – Bernie Sanders has been dismissive, almost brusque, about his own Jewish faith.
And in America, faith is very much an issue. There is still plenty of anti-Semitism, which Sanders is obviously trying to avoid, but most voters prefer some belief in the One Above. Complete secularism is not popular in the United States at election time.
After all, even on the U.S. dollar it says, “In God We Trust.”
Yet Sanders works hard to evade the issue. He does not identify himself as a Jew publicly even in the “cultural” sense. In fact, in 30 years as a politician he has totally avoided the issue, colleagues say.
He was heckled in Vermont during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and was among the few senators who did not co-sponsor the Senate resolution supporting Israel in the war. It passed with a voice vote.
As a presidential candidate, Sanders said he consulted the far-left ‘J Street’ lobby and the Arab American Institute founded by Jim Zogby on Mideast Policy. Last year he was one of the first who announced they were skipping the historic address to Congress on Iran by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Even Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is skeptical about Sanders as a candidate. “He’s never really been that identified that strongly with pro-Israel advocacy,” Hoenlein said.
Coming from Hoenlein, who is more of a centrist himself, that is a whopping red flag.
Perhaps all this is not as surprising as one might think, however, given his family background and the fact that his second wife, Jane, was raised a Roman Catholic. Sanders grew up in Brooklyn as the son of immigrants; much of his father’s family was wiped out in the Holocaust. In fact, he once told still remembers the call his father received in the middle of the night, telling him a relative had arrived at a DP (displaced person’s) camp.
From that, he told Margaret Talbot at New Yorker magazine, he learned that a 1932 election had led to the murders of 50 million people. From that, perhaps he left unsaid, he also learned early on that Jews could die when identified as Jews.
His brother Larry was quoted by PBS in an interview in England where he lives, as saying that being Jewish is “very important to us. There was no problem of debate, it was just a given in our lives, just as being Americans was a given in our lives. But Bernard is not particularly religious. He doesn’t go to synagogue often. I think he probably goes to synagogue only for weddings and funerals, rather than to pray.”